Europe’s Necessary European
Last autumn, I was in Malta at the Valletta Summit on Migration, attended by European and African heads of state and government. I was invited as United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General for International Migration. As is customary at such events, there was a group photograph, in which I ended up beside German Chancellor Angela Merkel. I took the opportunity to whisper to her that, in my opinion, she was a heroine for her action on the migration issue. Her reply was to the effect that she was doing what was “necessary for Europe.”
Since then, I have reflected on her actions and what she, not just then but over the many months of Europe’s migration crisis, has said. In essence, Merkel has called this an existential crisis for Europe, and more serious than the Greek debt imbroglio. She has also repeatedly cited the moral (and legal) obligation that we all owe to refugees.
Much of the world is surprised that a German chancellor is speaking in these terms. Altiero Spinelli, the late Italian European federalist, wrote that German racism, which incited World War II, may have been occasioned by, but was not caused by, economic motives. He argued that, in historic terms, “the absurd anarchy of European international organization” has been “the most propitious terrain imaginable for the full expression of racism.” That suspect terrain is clearly visible once more in the absence of support for the EU’s proposed migrant quota system, which would allocate refugees to the member states on the basis of fair criteria.
It is clear from Merkel’s comments and actions that she wants to take the lead on this issue not just in Germany, but in Europe as a whole. It is also clear that many Europeans (and others) appreciate her courageous and principled stand. Europe needs leadership, and its institutions require its member states – particularly the most powerful ones – to address an issue that goes to the heart of the values we profess to hold.
It goes without saying that the principles of shared sovereignty and solidarity that underpin European integration are an expression of a moral vision that contradicts the nationalist principle of earlier times, with its taint of racism. So, when Merkel argues that European integration is threatened by the public’s negative reaction to the mass flow of desperate people, it is the fate of the post-nationalist vision that she has in mind.
She is right to worry that Europe’s states and peoples have lost the will to remain united in (and by) a system based on law and morality, including the application of the concepts of human dignity and equality to the question of our obligations toward refugees. Democracy demands that politicians respect their voters; but an increasing number of politicians are respecting the often odious views of the public toward refugees, adopting brutal responses toward those seeking shelter in Europe.
And now, in response to the crisis, borders are being reinstated in the Schengen Area, which not too long ago symbolized European unity and freedom of movement for its citizens. Inevitably, new borders will lead to the creation of large refugee camps in member states like Greece. Elsewhere, too, refugees are to be kept, it seems, under lock and key. Indeed, in Denmark, “valuables” are to be confiscated from migrants at the border in order to help defray the costs of their “sanctuary.”
Meanwhile, statements by some Central and Eastern European governments indicate that they reject, outright, the obligation enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention. Some have said that they will consider asylum only for “Christians.” Such language is a gift to the Islamic State.
Merkel stands in the tradition of Walter Hallstein, the first president of the European Community, who once spoke of a Europe “without military divisions relying on the rule of law.” But the rule of law in Europe cannot be a restaurant where member states pick and choose, à la carte, the laws they will obey.
It is essential that all member states – and their voters – recognize that there is no option when it comes to the binding nature of legal commitments within the EU: Either comply with European law or leave. The supremacy of European law commands the support of national governments and enforcement by national courts.
That will not be possible with a Europe of demagogues and, worse, spineless establishment politicians who pander instead of lead. That is what Merkel has recognized, and it is why she now embodies the leadership Europe needs.
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